Select Committee on Public Administration Fourth Report



a)  We continue to be disappointed by the failure of many departments to adopt a practice recommended by this Committee and accepted by the Government, and recommend again that the Government ensure that where Departments withhold information under an exemption in the Code of Practice (or later under the Freedom of Information Act 2000) they invariably cite the relevant exemption.

The Government agreed, in response to a recommendation from the Committee's predecessor, the Public Service Committee, that where Ministers withhold information in response to a Parliamentary Question they should explain their reasons for doing so and the reasons should relate to the exemptions laid down in the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. This continues to be the Government's position, and is stressed in the Guidance to Officials on Drafting Answers to Parliamentary Questions. In the light of the concerns raised by the Committee, the Government has reissued the Guidance, reproduced at Annex A, and reminded Ministers and civil servants of their responsibilities in this area.

b)  We recommend that when Departments are considering refusing to answer a question on the grounds of 'disproportionate cost' there should be a presumption that any of the requested information which is readily available should be given.

The revised Guidance on Answering Parliamentary Questions, reproduced at Annex A, states that, in future, when Ministers refuse to provide information on the grounds of disproportionate cost, there should be a presumption that any of the requested information which is readily available should be provided.

c)  We recommend that when information is deposited in the Library in response to a parliamentary question a copy of it should always be supplied to the Member at the same time.

The Government agrees that in future when information is deposited in the Library for the first time, in response to a Parliamentary Question a copy of the information should, wherever practical, be supplied to the Member at the same time. Departments have been reminded of the need to observe this courtesy.

d)  We deplore the practice of leaving a question unanswered until another member tables a similar question and then answering the second question first and the earlier one only by reference, and recommend that in cases where two similar questions are tabled the member who tabled the question first should receive the substantive answer.

The Government is committed to providing prompt and accurate answers to Parliamentary Questions. The normal procedure remains to answer Questions as soon as possible after they are tabled, and therefore in date order. Inevitably, some questions cover similar ground. On occasion, it is more helpful to answer a later but more wide-ranging question and to refer an earlier question to that answer.

e)  We deplore the practice of answering part only of a question and ignoring the rest, whether it arises out of policy or slackness; we recommend that Departments should introduce stringent checks to ensure that all parts of a question are addressed.

The Government attaches the highest importance to the duty of Ministers and civil servants to provide full and accurate information to Parliament and the public. This point is stressed in the Ministerial Code and the Civil Service Code. The Guidance to Officials on Drafting Answers to Parliamentary Questions makes it clear that departments should approach every Question predisposed to give relevant information fully, as concisely as possible and in accordance with disproportionate cost. This continues to be the Government's position. Ministers are accountable to Parliament for their decisions and actions, including answers to Parliamentary Questions. If a member is unhappy with a response to a Parliamentary Question, he or she should raise the matter with the Minister concerned.

f)  We hope that following the intervention of the Cabinet Secretary and the Minister there will be improvements in departmental responses to Members in the next Session of Parliament.

Like the Committee, the Government attaches importance to the prompt and efficient handling of Members' correspondence. The Government recognises that the right to raise constituents' cases and other issues directly with Ministers is an important part of the democratic process and underlines the accountability of Ministers to the House.

All departments report regularly on their performance in replying to correspondence from Members. The most recently published figures, which cover the year 2000, show that, during 2000, around 8,000 more letters were replied to within the target times set by departments than in 1999, an improvement of 4 per cent in overall performance.

The Government aims to continue to improve performance and to raise the standards of all departments to those of the best. To this end, the Cabinet Office has collated and published examples of good practice in handling correspondence - both from Members and from the general public - so as to promote best practice across Whitehall and ensure that departments learn from each others' experience.

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Prepared 20 December 2001